I Wonder as I Wander
Louisville native John Jacob Niles (1892-1980) is considered one of our nation's most influential musicians. As a composer and balladeer, Niles drew inspiration from the deep well of traditional Appalachian and African American folk songs. At the age of sixteen Niles wrote one of his most enduring tunes, "Go 'Way from My Window," basing it on a song fragment from a black farm worker. This iconic song has been performed by folk artists ever since and may even have inspired the opening line of Bob Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe."
In I Wonder as I Wander: The Life of John Jacob Niles, the first full-length biography of Niles, Ron Pen offers a rich portrait of the musician's character and career. Using Niles's own accounts from his journals, notebooks, and unpublished autobiography, Pen tracks his rise from farm boy to songwriter and folk collector extraordinaire. Niles was especially interested in documenting the voices of his fellow World War I soldiers, the people of Appalachia, and the spirituals of African Americans. In the 1920s he collaborated with noted photographer Doris Ulmann during trips to Appalachia, where he transcribed, adapted, and arranged traditional songs and ballads such as "Pretty Polly" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Niles's preservation and presentation of American folk songs earned him the title "Dean of American Balladeers."
Niles's dedication to the folk music tradition lives on in generations of folk revival artists such as Jean Ritchie, Joan Baez, and Oscar Brand. I Wonder as I Wander explores the origins and influences of the American folk music resurgence of the 1950s and 1960s, and finally tells the story of a man at the forefront of that movement.
Ron Pen, associate professor of music and director of the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music and the Appalachian Studies Program at the University of Kentucky, is the editor of The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles and of Jean Ritchie's Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians. He lives in Clark County, Kentucky.
"In what is billed as the "first full-length biography of the "dean of American balladeers,'" the University of Kentucky professor takes on the influential Louisville-born songwriter and folk singer."-Lexington Herald-Leader
"A gracefully written biography of a performing artist, composer, and folklore collector who was a powerful cultural force in twentieth-century America." -Alan Jabbour, founding director of the American Folklife Center
"The University Press of Kentucky should be congratulated for publishing this fine volume on the life of John Jacob Niles. Ron Pen has done a masterful job of weaving together the various sources, beginning with Niles' own rustic memoirs, along with Rena Niles' more sophisticated recollections of events concerning the comings and goings on the concert trail both small and great. It deserves a wide audience."-Br. Patrick Hart, Cistercian Studies
Purchase from University Press of Kentucky
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